Cedar Rapids City Council kills a proposed Cargill rail yard through inaction, but the company isn’t giving up on the project

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Cargill rail car on railroad siding in Cedar Rapids, Aug. 29, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Mayor Brad Hart said the proposal to allow Cargill to build an 18-track rail yard would be the “most controversial decision” the Cedar Rapids City Council has faced in the last year and a half, but that decision never happened.

The council never voted on the proposal that would have declared the rail yard an “essential service” when it was considered during the council’s Aug. 27 meeting. Not taking a vote on the proposal effectively killed it.

But while that proposal died, the push by Cargill to build its own rail yard in Cedar Rapids is still moving forward.

The proposal the city council declined to vote on involved two lots on Otis Road, near Prairie Park Fishery. All the lots along that area are currently zoned either “residential” or “agricultural,” and the essential services designation would have allowed the company to bypass the normal rezoning process.

The decision by the City Planning Commission (CPC) in July to approve the essential services designation was controversial, and prompted pushback from residents of the Rompot neighborhood, which borders the proposed site of the rail yard.

Recommending an essential service designation for such a project was unusual, Ken DeKeyser, Cedar Rapids development services manager, told Little Village.

“There are no real cut and dry rules as to when you would use essential service or rezoning,” DeKeyser said. “[It’s based on] what seems to work best for the needs of the applicant and neighborhood.”

City staff recommended the essential services designation for the Otis Road location instead of rezoning because it allowed for more flexibility over the site, according to DeKeyser.

The CPC’s July resolution approving the essential services designation imposed nine conditions on the rail yard, including limited hours of operation, limited noise levels and prohibiting the storage of hazardous materials in the rail cars on site. Typically, there are no conditions that need to be met with rezoning.

The restrictions the CPC imposed on the rail yard — which would have had the capacity to handle 200 rail cars — did little to reassure most residents of the Rompot neighborhood. Numerous Rompot residents attended the Aug. 27 city council meeting to speak out against the Cargill project.

One of the speakers was State Sen. Rob Hogg, who lives on Otis Road. Hogg rejected the CPC designation.

“A private rail yard is not an essential service,” he told the city council.

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Hogg also contended the construction of a rail yard was unfair to Rompot residents.

“Everyone who bought their property was not expecting to live next to a rail yard,” he said. “It is an industrial intrusion into this neighborhood.”

Only Mayor Hart and Councilmember Dale Todd said they supported declaring the rail yard an essential service, as long as the company agreed to abide by the restrictions in the CPC resolution, but even Todd expressed misgivings. He said declaring a project designed by one private company an essential service fell into a “gray zone” and predicted “we’ll probably get sued” if it was approved.

Allowing the measure to expire without a vote spared councilmembers who opposed it from voting against one of Cedar Rapids’ biggest employers. Cargill, a Minnesota-based multinational corporation focused on agricultural goods and services, is the largest privately owned American business in terms of revenue. Its Cedar Rapids operation employs approximately 200 people.

Dan Pulis, manager of Cargill’s corn milling facility in Cedar Rapids, released a written statement following the city council’s inaction.

Cargill has designated a significant amount of time and resources to this project. We recognize the Cedar Rapids City Council had a tough decision to make. Their vote didn’t approve or deny us from building a rail yard. As a result, we are prepared to continue to designate time and resources to find a path forward. Rail service has been a critical part of our business and needs to continue to be if we are to remain a viable operation in the community.

Cargill is turning its attention back to a location on Stewart Road, Pulis told Little Village in an email. That lot, which is owned by the city, was the company’s original choice for the site of its planned rail yard, but Cargill abandoned that plan because of opposition from nearby residents. Pulis called the site the “only viable property available.”

The company currently uses a third-party for the services the rail yard would provide. Cargill claims that having its own rail yard is necessary for its Cedar Rapids operations to be cost-effective in the future.

Pulis didn’t say when Cargill would submit a proposal for the Steward Road site, explaining the timing will be based on the city’s review process, the ability to have discussions with neighbors and how long it would take an engineering firm to finalize a plan for the facility’s layout.

The choice of the Stewart Road location is already receiving support.

Councilmember Ashley Vanorny, who opposed constructing the rail yard at the Otis Road location, said, “When Cargill inevitably reconsiders the Stewart Road location, they can count on my full support.”

Otis Road resident Rick Stanek, who spoke against the essential services designation at the council meeting, agreed the Stewart Road location is good decision. Stanek said he believes some people will be against the rail yard no matter where it is located but said it sounds like there is some support for the Stewart Road site from the people in that neighborhood.

“Sure, it would be best for everybody in the neighborhood if there was no rail yard, but let’s be realistic, there’s going to be a rail yard,” Stanek said. “That’s the best location for it.”

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